The house is quiet, very quiet. ”Things were going to change,” Joseph Kaye’s father had said, just before leaving Joseph alone. In Changes, a strangely ominous picture book about a child’s profound anxiety over the arrival of a new sibling, Joseph doesn’t seem to know what ”changes” his father means. And it isn’t made clear to the reader until the last page that Joseph has been left on his own because his father has gone to bring Joseph’s mother and new sister home from the hospital.
As any 6-year-old can tell you, a very quiet house where you are left alone is filled with odd little creaks and shadows that make your heart jump with irrational fear. But Joseph is bizarrely impassive: He doesn’t jump, scream, or cry when the kettle sprouts furry ears and a tail, the couch turns into an alligator when he sits down on it, and the bathroom sink spookily grows a man’s leg, complete with a foot in a brown shoe.
Joseph just gets paler and quieter, until he finally goes to his room and turns out the light — if this is author Anthony Browne’s image for emotional withdrawl, it doesn’t work for this reader. It seems jarringly implausible. The story ends when Joseph’s parents arrive home with a new baby.
Browne is a gifted British author-illustrator whose previous best-selling books include the popular Gorilla (1985) and 1989’s powerfully Freudian The Tunnel. Like them, Changes tries to create pictorial equivalents for children’s deepest emotional traumas.
To take children seriously is the strongest tribute an artist can pay young readers — and it usually causes a ruckus. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, with its frank acknowledgment of a small boy’s aggression, sparked an uproar when it was published in the ’60s. By now, Sendak and his once-scary ”wild things” are practically household icons.
Browne’s latest daring venture may not earn the same affection. He’s indisputably a clever artist, and this book’s eerily convincing paintings of surreal transformations show off his visual wit. He hints at his theme of the newborn’s arrival with recurring images of birds and eggs. Scattered like clues throughout are sly references to famous artworks (Raphael’s Madonna del Granduca hangs on the living room wall) and to Browne’s own earlier picture books.
Still, for all the artistic bravura, there’s something flat, repressed, and creepily sinister about the whole situation. Why haven’t Joseph’s parents told him about the new baby? Why doesn’t Joseph panic when a snake slithers across the rug, or when his whole world shifts like a mirage in a heat haze? When his red-faced, bawling sister comes home, she appears monstrously large and faintly repulsive — emotionally true for Joseph, perhaps, but hardly a satisfying resolution.
Changes is bold but cold, a dazzling bit of ingenuity for sophisticated kids with nerves of steel. B